The First 35 Years of the Aspen Center for Physics

by Jeremy Bernstein


I made my first visit to the Aspen Center for Physics in June of 1969. The Center had been in operation since the summer of 1962 and from the beginning one of its founders, Michael Cohen, had been urging me to apply for a visit. There was a selection committee. I had known Cohen, one of the few PhD students of Richard Feynman, ever since we overlapped at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton during the academic year of 1957–58. Cohen was now a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He was also very persuasive, but I had been spending my summers doing physics in Europe. Now I was going to try Colorado.

I flew to Denver and rented a Volkswagen at a place called Rent–a–Bug. I was assured that it was just the ticket for mountain driving. I got directions for getting to Aspen and was instructed to go by way of Independence Pass which would save a good deal of time. I took what is now Interstate I–70 until the turn–off to Leadville. Many of these Colorado mountain towns have mineral names such as Gypsum or Silt. Once on the turn–off it was clear that I was in the high mountain country and indeed I passed the highest mountain in Colorado, Elbert. Then I turned off onto the road to Aspen. The road went steadily upward to the pass at over 12,000 feet. It marks the Continental Divide. Water to the east flows east and water on the Western Slope flows west. I stopped to take in the view – a sea of snow covered mountains – and then headed down the winding road to Aspen, a descent of about four thousand feet.

I had a map as to how to find the Physics Center. The highway down which I had come–82–turns into Main Street and then all you had to do was go to Sixth Street and turn north. At the end of Sixth Street was the Center. There were two buildings on the campus. The more formal concrete structure was called Stranahan Hall. I had no idea who Stranahan was or why he should have a hall named after him. The other building–a sort of wooden barrack–was called Hilbert. I knew who Hilbert was. He was one of the greatest mathematicians of the twentieth century. Some of his mathematics is used in the formulation of the quantum theory. He once remarked that theoretical physics was too hard for physicists. He also once said that if the ten smartest people in the world got together they could not invent anything as stupid as astrology. There was every reason to name a building for him. I learned much later that the building had been used in a study of a high–energy accelerator, now Fermilab, and that the director of that study, Robert Wilson, had arranged to donate the building to the Center.

My instructions were to report to Stranahan to learn where I would be living and acquire a key for same and directions as to how to get there. The instructions told me that I would have a one–bedroom condominium in a complex called Glory Hole–a reference to Aspen's mining days. It was on the east side of town. I parked my “Bug” and noticed a couple of horses grazing on the front lawn. The condominium was simple and pleasant. I unpacked and went by foot to look for some place to have dinner. The restaurant I came across was called the Wienerstube and, since I had spent some time doing physics in Vienna, I thought that a schnitzel would be just the ticket. After dinner I ventured further into town. I soon came to the Wheeler Opera House, which also dated from the mining days. There was the sound of music and laughter coming from below. Upon inspection it turned out to be a bar called The Pub. Down I went. The bar itself was a very wide affair with a metal top. I sat down. To my left was a very attractive blond girl dressed in what I would call Western Casual. I was beginning a conversation with her when down the very wide metal bar there was a fellow being slid along at rather high speed. My neighbor noting my astonished expression said, “You must be from the East.” That was my introduction to Aspen.

I have now been coming for some forty years and since 1995 have been a part–time resident. I have seen the town grow and change and the Physics Center grow and change along with it. I want to give some of this history and that is what these chapters are about.

Chapter I